1914 - 1918 Erster Weltkrieg - timeline

Im Ersten Weltkrieg – noch vor der Entstehung der beiden Staaten Estland und Lettland – kämpfen sowohl lettische als auch estnische Soldaten in den Reihen der Armeen des Russischen Kaiserreiches. Am Ende des Krieges proklamieren beide Länder ihre Unabhängigkeit. Doch das formelle Kriegsende bringt noch keinen Frieden. Estland und Lettland müssen sich verschiedener militärischer Kräfte und politischer Begierden erwehren – reichsdeutscher Ansprüche auf die estnischen und lettischen Territorien, deutschbaltischer Bemühungen zur Schaffung eines gesamtbaltischen Staates, sowjetrussischer Bestrebungen, die Territorien der baltischen Länder der UdSSR einzuverleiben, und der Vorhaben, ehemaliger Offiziere des Russischen Kaiserreiches, die Bolschewiki zu besiegen und die baltischen Provinzen für Russland zu erhalten.

28 June 1914
Assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand: The pretext of World War I

The war was fought between two coalitions: the Triple Entente (Great Britain, France and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria and Italy, which joined the Entente soon after). The territory of Baltic States was a part of Russian Empire with a strategic importance to Russia during the war. First and foremost, the region was crucial in the defence of Petrograd, the then capital of the Russian Empire. Prior to the war, a number of significant military fortifications had been erected in Baltic region. Construction work continued into the war years, including on Peter the Great's Naval Fortress. Military factories and a port were constructed in Tallinn, which became a base for the Baltic Fleet of the Imperial Russian Navy.

 

July 1914
Mobilisation of reservists and recruits

At the end of July, Russia declared general mobilisation in Baltic provinces - governorates of Estonia, Livonia, Courland (Kurzeme) and Governorate of Vitebsk.It is estimated that approximately 80,000 men from Estonia and 250,000 from Latvia were enlisted into the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. Around a tenth of them died in combat. For many educated locals, the war was an opportunity to quickly earn the rank of an officer: by 1917 there were more than 2000 Estonian officers and 8000 Latvian officers serving in the Russian Army. 

July 28, 1914
The Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war against Serbia

The Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war against Serbia and invades and bombards Belgrade with artillery.

August 1, 1914
Germany declares war on Russia

Supporting its allies Germany began a mobilization. In August 1914 and February 1915, the Russian army suffered heavy losses at the Masurian lakes and at Augustov in East Prussia. Almost 20,000 Latvians fell in battle or were captured. By the end of April 1915, the Germans began an offensive in the direction of Lithuania and Courland. The city of Liepāja fell on May 7, and by the end of the month, the Germans had occupied Courland all the way to the Venta River.

 

August 1, 1914
Germany declares war on Russia

To defend Saint Petersburg (Petrograd), the construction of sea defences began on Estonian and Finnish coastlines (Peter the Great Naval Fortress) in 1912. The construction on the islands of Western Estonia began in 1915. 57 cannon-equipped coastline defence forts, 13 anti-aircraft forts and several seaplane bases were built by 1917. Potential landing operation areas were equipped with barbed wire and trenches.
80,000 men from Estonia (from the Governorate of Estonia and the Estonian part of the Governorate of Livonia) were mobilised, of whom approximately 15,000 died. Though before the war Estonian men served in regiments in Estonia, Livonia or Courland, during the war Estonians served on all fronts.
 

August 28, 1914
A German cruiser Magdeburg ran aground near Osmussaar

Most of the crew was evacuated but the Russian Navy succeeded in capturing 45 sailors and officers as well as German Navy codes.

May 1, 1915
German Navy arrived in the Gulf of Riga

During the night of 1 May 1915, the German Navy arrived in the Gulf of Riga and sent a unit to the Island of Ruhnu. The unit landed at around 03:00. They were hoping to find Russian soldiers and a radio station. The Germans destroyed the top part of the lighthouse, including the lantern, and the petroleum warehouses. Four lighthouse guards were taken prisoner.

August 1, 1915
Establishment of voluntary Latvian riflemen's battalions

On July 13, the Germans continued offensive. By the end of July, they moved to the East, taking positions on the banks of the Daugava River.  Latvian politicians agreed that it was necessary to establish national military units in the Russian army to defend Riga and liberate Courland from the Germans.  A command was issued on the establishment of the first two voluntary Latvian riflemen's battalions.  The slogan was "Gather Under Latvian Flags!" An enrolment commission began its work on August 12, and 472 men volunteered during the first two days.

 

August 1915
There were several smaller skirmishes between the German and Russian Navy in the Gulf of Riga

The German Navy tried to break through the minefields of the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet and supported the ongoing attack of German troops around Riga. The goal of the German Navy was to destroy units of the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet operating in the Muhu Strait as well as bomb fortifications at the mouth of Daugava River and Pärnu harbour. The German Navy also bombed Kuressaare and Roomassaare harbour, though without clear success.

On 20 August 1915, there was an attempt to land at Pärnu, but due to the counteractions of Russian forces the attempt was unsuccessful. The commandant of Pärnu, Colonel Aleksandr Rodzjanko, feared that more German troops would appear and ordered the most important civil buildings in the city, such as Waldhof’s cellulose factory and Pärnu Power Plant, to be destroyed. Though the activities of the German Navy were unsuccessful, the Gulf of Riga became one of the most active areas of fighting for the next two years.

 

1916
The front line at Riga and the Daugava River

The front lines were stabilised in the territory of Latvia, and a trench war began with many unsuccessful attempts to break them.  The battles took place at Ķekava and Jēkabpils in March and July, as well as at Ilūkste. In August, the battles at Smārde took place.  Between April and October, the Latvian riflemen fought on Death Island, deterring the Germans from crossing the Daugava River on their way to Riga.  This is one of the first frontline sectors in Latvia where Germans use poisonous gases.

The so-called Christmas battles at the frontline of Riga near Tīreļpurvs Swamp occurred from December 23-29 (Julian calendar).  The objective was to liberate the city of Jelgava and Courland, but they suffered heavy losses.

1917
The Russian army collapses and Rīga is occupied

The Russian army collapses and Riga is occupied

As the war dragged on, people and politicians in Russia were increasingly dissatisfied with the rule of the Tsar, and during the February 1917 revolution, the Tsar was forced to abdicate in favour of a temporary government.  The Bolsheviks overthrew the government in November, and the radical wing of the Communist Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, led the process.  The Russian army was weak, German made use of that fact, and launched Hutier's Offensive - occupied Riga in early September 1917.  Latvian riflemen delayed the Germans at the Jugla River, thus rescuing Russia's 12th army. In October 1917, German Naval Infantry launched operation Albion and occupied the islands of Western Estonia.

30 March 1917
The Russian Provisional Government decrees that the lands with a majority ethnic Estonian population be merged into a unified Estonian autonomous governorate led by a Governorate Commissar.

With the institution of the post of Governorate Commissar came the formation of a legislative diet called the Provincial Assembly, elections for which were held in spring and summer. This sparked a surge in political activity and the founding of political parties. The idea began to spread among nationalist politicians of attaining statehood for Estonia within the Russian Republic. There was also a surge in the popularity of Bolshevists, who oversaw the formation of workers' councils in cities and among the military units stationed in Estonia.

 

April 1917
The formation of Estonian military units

The formation of Estonian military units, which by that December had been merged to form the 1st Estonian Infantry Division. Tens of thousands of Estonian soldiers who had been scattered across military units in the Imperial Russian Army returned for the formation of the Estonian military units in 1917. This provided the basis for the Estonian army that would prove victorious in the War of Independence.

The German landing in order to occupy the Western Estonian islands, so-called Operation Albion, began on 12 October 1917 and lasted for one and a half weeks. The landing happened at Tagalaht. The leader of the operation was infantry general Hugo von Kathen, leading the XXIII Reserve Corps. 24,600 officers and soldiers, 8500 horses, 2500 carriages, 40 cannons, 220 machine guns and 80 mine throwers participated in the attack.

 

 

15 November 1917
The Provincial Assembly declares itself the highest authority in Estonia

This provided a legal basis for self-determination, even though the assembly was disbanded by the Bolshevists that same day.

 

November 29, 1917
Latvian Provisional National Council established in Valka

It was a political organization of the Latvian Central Committee for Refugee Support, representatives of Latvian political parties and Vidzeme Provisional Land Council and Latgale Provisional Land Council. Due to the achievements of the German army, the National Council also met in Petrograd, in secret from the Bolshevik regime. Council played a key role in strengthening the idea of Latvian independence in front of the Western Allies.

1918
Under German control

Following the failure of the Brest-Litovsk peace talks on 16 February 1918, the German army leadership announced that the ceasefire would be abolished on 17 February. During Operation Faustschlag, the German army moved forward rapidly along the railway lines without serious resistance. On February 18, German troops occupied the city of Daugavpils and continued to Estonia and Pskov. Already on February 19, Lenin urged the German side to offer a peace treaty on any terms. On March 3 the Brest-Litovsk treaty was signed between the Germans and Russia.The full German occupation meant that Latvian riflemen retreated to Russia and joined the Bolsheviks as Latvian red riflemen units as part of the Soviet Red Army.

24 February 1918
The Estonian Salvation Committee declares the independence of the Republic of Estonia

The declaration was made during the brief window when Russian forces were retreating but German forces had yet to occupy all of Estonia. The next day, a provisional government was formed in Tallinn (with Konstantin Päts as prime minister) which only enjoyed power for a few short days before the German troops occupied Tallinn. The German Empire did not recognise the newly-founded Republic of Estonia. There was an attempt to create the Baltic Duchy, as a client state to Germany, from occupied Estonian and Latvian lands. This would have been governed by Baltic Germans. The plan failed following the defeat of the Central Powers in November 1918. Germany then began evacuating its troops from Estonia.

 

November 11, 1918
The end of World War I

While the Armistice was concluded on the western front, the war in the east continued. Estonian Provisional Government returned to power and the Estonian Defence League was created to lend it military support. Meanwhile, political forces in Latvia continued to agree on a common platform for declaring independence.

12 November 1918
The Provisional Government decides to form a regular army.

On 16 November 1918 the compulsory mobilisation of professional soldiers and the voluntary mobilisation of others was announced. Thus the Estonian Defence Forces were born.

 

November 18, 1918
Latvian independence

A merger of nationalist and anti-Bolshevik forces in Latvia established the People's Council, which declared Latvia's independence and established a temporary government led by Kārlis Ulmanis.  The new government gradually took over governance from German occupation and military institutions.

19 November 1918
German government representatives sign a treaty handing over control of Estonian territories to the Estonian Provisional Government